Saturday April 24, 1999
|W R I G G L Y|
|By Justin Stoner|
Pound for pound, this stock is more valuable than cattle, sheep or hogs.
Just like any other herd, there are roundups, feeding times, head counts and per-pound sales. What you won't hear of, though, are brandings, inoculations or ear tags.
These critters are just too small. They're worms.
Happy D Ranch Worm Farm in Visalla is a clearinghouse for worm farm information and equipment nationwide with about 15,000 head of worms wiggling around a 2-acre spread.
Founder Glenn Dembroff started the business of growing worms part time in 1995 after he won a worm bin - called the Can-O-Worms - in a raffle.
He said he liked it so much, he wanted to market it to households across the country.
His business evolved from growing and selling worms and marketing the Can-O-Worms to promoting household vermicompostmg and educating people about the hidden environmental value of worms.
"Ninety percent of what we do now is education and 10 percent selling the product," Dembroff said.
In 1996, he launched a Web site, (http://www.happydranch.com) with page after page of information and a question and answer forum for worm farmers.
"Our first Web site educated people about buy-back schemes, where businesses will sell worms for inflated prices with the 'promise' of buying the worms back from you," Dembroff said. Initially, our site grew to about 20 to 30 visitors per day."
The site is animated with a worm inching its way across the banner and another worm sporting a cowboy hat and twirling a lasso. It now gets about 100 visitors a day, he said.
To supplement the web site, Dembroff wrote "Exploring Profits in Worm Farming" to answer a flood of telephone calls from prospective growers about the industry, known as vermiculture.
This part time job became too much, so he partnered with Al and Dorothy Benoy, who now run the day-to-day activities of the ranch from their home.
Dembroff said he is still "the voice of Happy D Ranch and the technical guru."
Basically, there are two kinds worms. The earthworm or nightcrawler ingests soil and extracts the nutrients. The composter eats decaying materials.
Cornposting worms are photophobic -they don't like light, Dembroff said. And they don't like too much dirt. They live mostly in the environment off which they feed.
Worm growing started out in the 1800s as an industry to supply eager anglers who wanted to spend more time fishing than digging through the dirt for bait, Dembroff said.
Fishing worms are still the highest per-point market for the wigglers. Dembroff said worm farmers can make about $1 per dozen worms, which adds up to about $80 a pound.
Worm farmers have discovered other markets and uses for their low-grazing herds.
Worms are used as food for animals in zoos and pet stores, he said.
Unlike cattle or other animals, worms don't need sprawling ranches. Worms are kept in three types of habitats by farmers - bins, dirt mounds called wind rows and pits.
Bins are more manageable and aesthetically appealing for household use. Bins can consist of something as small as a two-foot by two-foot plastic container to a large wooden rectangle on the ground in the back yard.
A healthy bin would contain about 10 percent dirt with compost material piled on top.
Aside from selling the worms, worm farmers can make money off selling worm manure, called castings.
Castings look like dark, rich coffee grounds. Unlike some manures and fertilizers that "burn" plants if used too much, castings are gentle and effective, Dembroff said.
"Castings are like caviar," he said, "you can use as much as you can afford."
C&C Vermiculture on north Shirk Street in Visalia relies on liquid run-off from castings - called leachate - to fertilize some of its 19 acres of pecans.
Charmaine Harris and Carolyn Foxe said they got into worm farming about a year-and-a-half ago. Their worm farm consists of about 9 million adult, red worms and about 27 million "baby" worms. Baby worms are creamy white and look like small fibers of thread.
To test the effectiveness of castings, Harris planted a variety of flowers and plants in equal-sized bins, fertilizing one with castings and leaving the other unfertilized.
Plants fertilized with castings were generally larger and fuller than those that weren't. The pair believe the same would be true if farmers used castings to fertilize on a large scale.
On several rows of pecans, Harris and Foxe pile up grass clippings and horse manure, then place worms in the rows. As the worms eat the compost, they produce castings.
While some worm farmers raise worms to sell for bait or sell the casting for fertilizer, Harris and Foxe are developing agricultural and industrial uses for their worms.
The pair said they were given a small grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to research how well cornposting worms break down cattle manure. The manure tends to build up soil damaging nitrates.
Harris and Foxe believe cattle ranches and dairies can use worms to convert the manure into castings, which can then be spread as a gentle fertilizer on crops.
"A lot of farmers can't even give the cattle manure away," Harris said. "This way they gain a value-added product. They end up with a much more usable product."
Worms consume far more appetizing food than manure. They eat anything that was once alive, Dembroff said, including old cotton T-shirts.
Benoy said vermicomposting could go a long way in reducing the amount of organic trash that's sent to landfills by households week after week.
"Let's face it, every pound you compost at home is a pound you're saving from going to the landfill," Benoy said. "The average home produces about 1.3 pounds of garbage that can be composted each day. In a year you could compost 300-500 pounds.
"Vermicomposting is the fastest way to reduce organic waste," she said.
Tulare County must reduce waste going to its landfill by 50 percent before the end of the year or face fines of up to $10,000 a day until it complies with state law.
Benoy said worms could play a part in reaching that goal.
"This is exciting because it solves a problem, and it's been right under our feet. People just aren't convinced yet," she said. "It's a science that's still developing, but it's actually been around since God created the Earth. We just haven't used what God created."